Arabic Grooves: rebel music of Algeria

Rai is a style born of strong local culture and uses street language to express opinions about life. Rai antagonises the values of ‘decent’ society and the cultural mainstream. As such, its path to international fame has been littered with controversy. As rai’s popularity rose the music lost much of its defiance, and yet it has retained a lot of its power. 

Oran: Where It All Began

Rai began in Western Algeria’s modern seaport, Oran, known as the ‘little Paris’ of North Africa. During the early 20th century, Algeria experienced great change and social upheaval. Traditional patterns of society were broken down and a new urban underclass was formed by poor factory workers. During this period of change, street poets began singing zendanis or bar songs that used bawdy rhymes and patches of improvised street wit covering every topic of concern including poverty, rural immigration, colonial misrule, unemployment, crime, and prostitution.

The word ‘rai’ loosely translates as an opinion, choice, advice or point. If stumped for the right phrase, the zendanis singer would use the cry ‘ya rai’ or ‘errai errai’ as if to say 'This is how I see the world.'

Women, Dock-Workers and Street Urchins 

The society of the 1920s exploited Muslim women and forced them to survive in hostile surroundings. Some women, who had survived the harshest of upbringings, opted for a life of music as a cheikha in order to survive. They adopted a hybrid style that was individual, rough-neck, free-speaking and generally ‘shocking’. They also adopted Oranian street slang, interwoven with bits of French. Cheikha Remitti El Reliziana was the most notorious cheikha and claimed to be el ghedra (the root) of modern rai.

Independence and the Jazz Age

In the 1930s, rai adopted the influences of the recently available Egyptian records and latest French pop tunes, creating the urban hybrid wahrani. Seduced by the music and culture of the jazz age, rai incorporated Western instruments, such as piano and accordion.

Revolutionary fervour erupted in the mid-1950s and insurrection gripped the country. The cheikhas and wahrani stars were quick to add their voice to the protests. In the heat of the war of independence, many rai artists managed to make their first records.

In the 1960s, after a short period of post-independence jubilation, Marxist theoreticians took a hard line against the libertine musicians and instead promoted a respectable ‘national’ music. Regional Oran TV stations were shut and bans were placed on concerts or gatherings of rai musicians. However, rai was always most comfortable in small gatherings and continued to survive and evolve.

The youth were becoming hooked on the latest sounds from Europe and America and rai had to be made danceable to retain its appeal. Sax, trumpet and the booming tabla drum were introduced. The post-revolutionary generation of young musicians formulated pop-rai by mixing rock, flamenco, jazz and the rai of the cheikhas. The first big stars of pop-rai were Chaba Fadela and Cheb Khaled.

Cassette Chebs 

By 1974, the cheap cassette recorders were available and allowed rai to circumvent state-run media. Modern rai was born with Chaba Fadela’s recording, 'Ana ma h’lali ennoum' in 1979. The song was the first to be a hit nation-wide. Rai continued to grow in popularity and by 1986 it was an international phenomenon. Cheb Mami, was the first rai singer to perform in the US and record an album outside France or Algeria. In 1985, the first official rai festival was held in Oran and in 1986 a festival was held in Paris.